Sunday, March 28, 2010

Review: Barolo at The Langham

Last night I ate a meal of incredible beauty and deliciousness at Barolo, inside The Langham. The hotel had invited myself and various other Earth Hour ambassadors to join in an hour of candlelight at their excellent bar, and I had earlier planned to use the trip into town as an excuse to visit Coco's Cantina on K Road. I still will do that, although my trusted friend Gemma went recently and was underwhelmed, not to mention somewhat disconcerted by the experience of eating her meal on the street while several nearby homeless people nearby did the same (the latter without tables or forks or shoes).

Anyway, around 5pm I checked my bank balance on a whim and, buoyed by the sight of $400 sitting there untouched barely 48 hours out from payday, upgraded to Barolo. My gf and I are suckers for Italy, so were both pretty excited about date night at a restaurant apparently committed to providing an authentic Piedmontese culinary experience. 

The food was faultless, consisting of traditional Piedmontese regional dishes adapted to the local food palette, though thankfully not the local food palate. A main course of venison (pictured above) came with the meat perfectly seared, without a hint of cooking beyond the scorched brown exterior. The flesh inside was rare and scarlet and perfect, and god bless them for not checking with us beforehand that we would be comfortable with that. Even better, one of our waiters confided that when people asked for the dish 'medium', the chef refuses to cook it. I love that confidence, and the confidence it inspires.

Our primi piatti – tagliolini tossed in a duck and red wine ragout – was heartbreakingly good too, combining the soulfulness of slow cooking, with the precision of good duck, with the hunger busting comfort of two minute noodles at the flat after a big night out at the Wailing Bongo.

Also, here's a picture of the tiramisu, which was bitter and juicy and sweet.

But you can get great food in a lot of places if you're willing to spend the money. For me, what elevates a meal are those little quirks and charms of service which make you happy during the 80% of your evening when your mouth isn't full. Like after we'd been seated, our waitress wandered over unprompted to ask my girlfriend if she would like to sit next to me rather than across the table from me. As it happened she did, and the suggestion encouraged her to make a move which she might otherwise have felt embarrassed about.

Another example - when we complimented the waiter on one of our courses he replied: “I'm not so sure”. He felt the sweetness of the sauce wasn't quite right with the savouriness of the meat. Hearing this from a New Zealand waiter would make you think there was going to be some sort of mutiny in the kitchen; from an Italian, it was an honest response which didn't belittle your own opinion so much as honour it with a discussion.

With our meal we had a complex and memorable bottle of Barbaresco which only just snuck in under $100, and I'd like to see some more accessibly priced wine on the menu. Whatever you order though, you'll enjoy seeing it poured – each table has it's own uniquely shaped decanting vessel, a nod no doubt to the titular red commanding the highest prices on the menu.

The executive chef-patron of Barolo is Alberto Usseglio, whose unusual job description apparently includes overseeing the menu, managing the arrival of diners and helping light candles for Earth Hour. Alberto is serious about his food (the hotel's managing director confided to me later that the Piedmont purist took some convincing to take the radical New World step of offering olive oil with bread at the start of the meal), and he's more than happy to talk about his creations – so if you can grab him for a chat between seating tables and dressing octopus you'll definitely enjoy picking his brain.